Having been a founder several times, I'm all too familiar with the feeling that work needs to come first.
"Let me just get to that next milestone and then I'll start exercising/working less/sleeping more/seeing friends/spending quality time with my partner/etc."
I know I've been productive, working like this, and while it's definitely not sustainable forever, I've managed to work this way for months, maybe even a year.
But that's... not a good thing.
Working in startups, it's great to be laser focused on specific goals - number of users, monthly recurring revenue (MRR), weekly growth rate, closing the next investment round. Working towards metrics is exactly what we recommend here at DQ, and what other investors and advisors would say to. There's absolutely nothing wrong with that, as long as you remember your own needs as well as those of the business.
Every founder is obviously different, but everybody has a breaking point. When I closed my last startup, Scaled Networks, I was absolutely broken. But it was only once it was over that I realised it. For others, it happens midstream. And that's bad for everyone.
I've invested in more than one business where the founder walked away, and I know of several others. More often that not, it's the end of the business.
So making sure you, as a founder, are in good mental and physical shape is not just good for you personally, it's good for everyone.
Something to try
How you look after yourself is entirely up to you, but there are clearly two parts to consider: mental health and physical health. After a solid 20 years of working full time, I've finally found an approach that, for me at least, solves both.
This is how I just broke ~20 years of not routinely reading or exercising, without feeling guilty about missing work or family time.
At the ripe old age of 46, I’ve finally found a way to read the books I want to read, to learn a language, and to exercise, Monday to Friday, every week. (If I had told myself that before 2022, I wouldn’t have believed me.)
Here’s how it happened.
First of all, a bit of fear. A good friend of mine told me I was getting way too thin (I realise a lot of people put weight on, but for some reason, when I don't look after myself, I waste away into a human coat-hanger). This friend had started going to the gym because he’d learned that, as you get older, your body needs more meat on its bones in order to survive serious illness...
Now hopefully I won’t get sick, but if I do, I want to see my kids grow up! Whether or not he spoke the truth, my friend planted a seed.
Secondly, I moved to Sweden (hence the new language). Here, I’m lucky to be surrounded by nature - forests filled with deer, shore lines, miles of country walks.
I love being outside, so in an effort to get more fresh air, explore my new home, and get some exercise, I started taking odd work calls while out walking. This wasn’t planned - it happened by accident - but a weird thing happened.
In fact, a lot of people said what a great idea it was, and said they should start doing the same.
I now do this routinely, although if it’s someone new, I always check first, as I want to make sure they don’t mind.
Nobody has said they mind.
The best kind of exercise, bar none.
Coincidentally, years ago I heard a doctor say there’s one type of exercise that is better for you than any other kind…
It’s the kind you enjoy, because that’s the only exercise you’ll actually keep doing.
Turns out, I enjoy walking.
So now I go for a walk every day. Ok, it’s not hyper-intensive, but I walk for over an hour every time I go.
And here’s the best part. Walking allows you to multi-task.
I realised that my walks were a great opportunity to learn. So now, when I’m not on calls, I listen to all the podcasts and books I’ve been meaning to get to for years! I’ve also started learning Swedish (much to my children’s constant amusement).
Interestingly, rather than this reducing my productivity, it’s actually helped my work no end.
I’ve read and learnt more in the last 6 months than I can ever remember, and I bring many of those learnings to our business. I also get my best ideas while out walking, because I’ve given my brain a chance to roam.
This last point is not to be underestimated. I honestly believe I get two or three big ideas every week, which I wouldn't have got without taking this time out of my day. I always have my phone with me, and I always stop to make notes - often about things I want to share on my LinkedIn page, or here on our blog.
This new routine has made me a better person. I sleep better, I'm more even-tempered with my children, I feel stronger and fitter (which will help me keep up on my boys' skiing trip next Feb!), and I have more to talk about.
I’m pretty sure you would find the same.
For me, this has become a true habit. Let me know if you try it.
– Woodland image by Larisa Koshkina.